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Coming together

Director Chen Kaige sees the world through a new prism: family.

May 28, 2003|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

FAMILY changes everything.

And for Chinese director Chen Kaige, it shows both in his new, low-key demeanor during a recent interview, and in his latest film, "Together," which opens Friday. In the past this celebrated Chinese auteur ("Farewell My Concubine") was famous for his formidable, intimidating presence -- on and off the set -- but today the tall, courtly man seems at ease, even friendly, as he talks about his work in an MGM office in Santa Monica.

So has he changed?

"Definitely, I think so," he says in his deep, rumbly voice.

Yes, there was an old self, a cynical, sometimes angry observer, the result, he says, of watching China tumble headlong into socioeconomic changes that were ripping apart the rich cultural fabric he had so loved. Disgusted, "I just wanted to play observer, I just wanted to watch and not get involved."

Then came the sea change: He got married. "I gained my interest in being a citizen of Chinese society again by marrying my wife," says the 50-year-old director. That was seven years ago and the woman is Chen Hong, an actress, who both co-stars in and produced his current film. Today, they are the proud parents of two sons, 5 and 2. "I became human again," Chen says.

Of course, that's also reflected in his filmmaking. "Together" features the close-focus vignettes of daily life and interpersonal relationships that made his early films such as "Yellow Earth" (1984) and "King of Children" (1987) such tender landmarks of the so-called Fifth Generation Chinese cinema, although a certain weight was added by placing his tales against the backdrop of China's tumultuous 20th century history -- events such as the coming of communism or the Cultural Revolution.

In "Together," a simple small-town peasant (Liu Peiqi) brings his son (Tang Yun), a violin prodigy, to big-city Beijing to find a violin master to elevate the boy to fame and fortune. With its contemporary subject and straightforward style, the film is a far cry from Chen's last film, "The Emperor and the Assassin," an overacted and over-produced epic about the famous assassination attempt made on the first emperor of China, the great unifier and tyrant. (Coincidentally, Zhang Yimou, Chen's sometime rival, has just completed a film about the same topic, the special-effects-laden "Hero," due out later this year.)

After the runaway art-house success of his "Farewell My Concubine" (1993) -- the epic period drama, set in the world of the Peking Opera, was a co-winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival -- Chen was showered with opportunities to direct in the West. But subsequently various projects fell by the wayside, and Chen prefers not to discuss his first and only English-language film, the unreleased erotic thriller "Killing Me Softly." There were stories that audiences were appalled by the film at previews. It was a script he was given, a work-for-hire situation, and in the end, he realized that the auteur style is much more suited to his temperament. "It's better for me to be involved with the writer, rather than just be given a script."

Reflecting Chinese society

The story for "Together" came to him while he was watching a TV interview with a Chinese villager who had brought his son to Beijing for its bright lights and opportunities. In the news piece, the son was playing violin off camera, while the doting father told any and all who would listen that his son was destined to be the No. 1 violinist in the world.

"The film is not just about the relationship between a father and son," says Chen, "but I think it can reflect what's going on in Chinese society today." He is referring to the middle-aged generation whose youth was disrupted by economic and political upheavals. "They have such regrets for their own lives, but they think maybe they can make their children into something."

Some of them, says Chen, believe that music is the path to success; in China it's a prestigious field that can pay off handsomely. However, these pushy parents can also take away from what Chen sees as the true artistic spirit.

"You can imagine what kind of pressure is put on the children," says Chen. "They have to practice four or five hours a day, until they eventually lose the real meaning of being a musician.

"It's the choice between personal happiness and success," he adds, and now a bit of that old curmudgeonly Chen comes back. "We no longer pay attention to what we loved in the past. Now it's money, money, money and that's it."

Making "Together" in Beijing, Chen was working on familiar ground. He wrote the screenplay with co-writer Xue Xiaolu. He hired veteran actors for key roles, including wife Chen Hong as Lili, a kept woman the boy falls a little in love with. The boy, Tang Yun, was found at a regional violin competition, although the soundtrack, available on Milan Records, is performed by Juilliard-trained Li Chuanyun.

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